EVOLUTIONARY WORLD VIEW.



They bring out of their storeroom new treasures as well as old. Matt. 13:52.


A world view is a comprehensive interpretation of our world. It is the cosmology of a given culture in a given place and time. Up to the middle of the 19th century, the prevalent world view in the West was static, which emphasized the immutable and the eternal and presented us with unchanging and unchangeable essences. In this view, everything was essentially finished and done according to a timeless plan. Any attempt at change was looked upon in a negative light because it meant a deviation from the original. In this static world, the original was the best, truth was universal, and moral good stood firm for ever for everyone, at all places and at all times. Time and history were mere accidentals in comparison to the never changing, essential realities of life. This view found nourishment in the prevalent classical education of the time in all western schools and universities.

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species In 1859. From that time on we had an alternative world view to consider. After all, if the natural world is a process and we are one of its products, then there is not much point in trying to understand ourselves and our traditions as something unchangeable. What is then important is to understand the process itself that brought us to our present moment, and to figure out the way into our future. The nature of the evolutionary process is fairly well known today. This knowledge is based on such observable features as variation, competition, selection, and some reasonably defined stochastic events. The result of all this is the forever changing adaptive evolution of the many existing species, including our own.

The ability of the species to change to the demands of the environment through adaptive responses, and to do that across generations, are the keys of this successful process. There is in this process a positive edge on life. Nothing can survive that is destructive because of the complex interdependence of all living things. Strange as it may seem, but not even competition is destructive because the adaptive response to it is coevolution toward mutual support and interdependence. This is true even in predator-prey and parasite-host relationships. Competition does not result in the monopoly on life gained by one or a few most successful species, but in adaptive radiation, which leads to a multitude of successful, specialized populations and communities. This is the source of the rich variation that we see in nature.
The evolutionary process is completely natural and practical. It is simply there to be alive, and to do it well. There are no specific goals to go toward, there are no theories to verify, and principles to live up to. In this process the many opposing factors are simply balanced and maintained close to values, which are the practical best for all concerned. As the conditions of the environment shift and change, so does the meaning of this practical optimum.

I am not concerned here to prove the validity of one world view over the other. After all, it is a matter of personal preference, whether we want to perceive our world static as in a snapshot of today, or dynamic as in a movie about our history. My concern is to compare the consequences of our preferences and the way they provide us with insights about many aspects of human life. Through this comparison, I hope to show that there is more at stake here than just a personal whim about choices of no importance. Consider the following small sample of ideas and experiences. The sample includes the way we understand such key concepts as tradition, human nature, compromise, and human life in the two frameworks of life, one static, the other evolutionary dynamic.

TRADITION.

In a static world, tradition means that the tenets of a culture or religion are passed from generation to generation in an atmosphere of conservatism. The parents tolerate no deviations from these tenets in their children. The argument is that the original is the best, and thus, change is detrimental. As to self image, there is an identification between the original and oneself. This identification provides self-esteem, while the absence of change gives a feeling of stability and security. The favorite adage is: “That’s the way it must be, because that’s the way it’s always been.”

Experience belies the validity of this conservatism. Sooner or later, rigid and static traditions will be in conflict with the unavoidable changes in our lives. A common example of such conflict is the painful experience of the generation gap. After all, the younger generation is not quite the same as the older. In certain issues, the differences between the old and the new may be so great that the heroes of yesterday are without cause and meaning today. The conservative response to changes is often nostalgic. I hear people to say, "It is not like in the good old days," and "I do not know what this world is coming to," implying that, however regrettable it may be, the world has changed. Of course, for the conservative, the changes are for the worse. Yet, life goes on, and often we realize that many changes were for the better.
In the evolutionary framework where adaptive changes are welcome, tradition is the element of continuity between successive generations. Members of each new generation have the task to be creative and perceptive as to the needs of the times. Their task is to adjust what they have received from their parents to the needs of the somewhat different conditions of their lives. They are expected to be different. To demand rigid adherence to the past would mean the denial of the new and actual needs of the present, a most unrealistic attitude. To have no respect for the past would be equally unrealistic be- cause it is our past that provides the foundations for the range of our present responses.

The following quote from a Catechism, first published in the nineteen sixties, most appropriately reflects the evolutionary perspective between generations: “Education is service. To treat children as unimportant is to be self-seeking. To regard children as things, which can be turned into copies of one’s own person and desires, is also self-seeking. Each child has something special and unique about it. It is a new human being, not a repetition of ourselves. The parents should serve this new life, to set it free to be itself.” (A New Catechism. New York, The Seabury Press, 1973. Page 405)

The generation gap is not the only painful experience that may be brought about by a static view of life. Violent political changes mark heavily our history. These are expressions of desperate needs, which have not been satisfied by a continuous flow of adaptive changes. Unbending adherence to a given status quo in a changing world will eventually lead to painful confrontations. Just as the cause of a violent earthquake is the slow buildup of tensions in the earth's crust, which have not been relieved by a continuous flow of small changes, so it is with the human condition. The evolutionary world view provides us with an adaptive model to avoid such destructive conflicts.


HUMAN NATURE.

In the static world view, human nature is complete from the first moment of its existence. After all, it is argued, that humanity means certain essential qualities and without these qualities no being can be called human. Consequently, human nature is universal and unchanging. It is the same for everyone who belongs to the human race. It is the same at all times and at all places. Any essential change would destroy our humanity. Development and history are not denied in the static world view, but they are considered as mere accidentals.

This static human nature is also the source and the foundation of natural law, which is then the same for everyone at all places and at all times. Just as human nature is unchangeable, so is natural law unchangeable. Needless to say that ‘human’ is often understood according to the dominant ethnic image of a given place and culture.

In the evolutionary world view, human nature is yet unfinished, open ended. It is not understood as a universal, timeless and essentially static humanness, but as a dynamic evolving reality in the great multitude of individual variations. It is not that each individual somehow participates in an objective blueprint of humanity, but that all of us together in our space and time, are humanity.

It is then correct to say, according to the evolutionary perspective, that human nature is a distribution and it is a process. One refers to the spatial, the other to the temporal meanings of our nature. Our variation is quite impressive. No two human beings are the same. We are all unique individuals, but at the same time, we all belong to the same distribution. Attempts to reduce human nature in its variation to a few common denominators would deny the real richness of the human experience. Human nature is also a process, extending to the entirety of our evolution history, from some unfathomable beginnings to a yet unknown future. This human process is a continuum of changes in which each moment adds something new to a yet unfinished narrative. It is like a tapestry, woven into the reality of a rich pattern by the many actions and decisions of all people everywhere through all history.

The evolving human nature is normative. In this context, however, the inherited wisdom of the past is just as much normative as the demands of the present. Furthermore, since we ourselves are the agents of our realization, the process is to that extent self-creative, and natural law is self-determinant. When we say that human nature is open ended, we say the same about the law that flows from our nature. This insight should fill us with gratitude and respect toward our past, and it should instill in us a deep sense of responsibility for our future.

COMPROMISE.

The ways we look upon our world, static or dynamic, have far reaching consequences. These two views have different methodologies, and they have different values. To illustrate the point, I propose to consider briefly the way we look upon a compromise according to the two views.

In a static world, the guiding light in making decisions is the unchanging tradition, which time has distilled into general rules of conduct. These are presented us as ideal principles of life to be followed at all cost and in all circumstances. Our method to arrive at the best choice of action in practical situations is deductive as we compare what we do with the dictates of the ideal. In situations of conflict we may say, as we dig our heels in and refuse to yield, that it is all a matter of principles. Such circumstances of conflict are no more than burdensome nuisances, which we are to overcome. Our task is to preserve the status quo at all costs and to live according to our principles through all sacrifices. This is the stuff that makes heroes, whom we respect. In this context the meaning of compromise is something negative, the act of a coward, whom we despise.

In the evolutionary context it is the practical best in the given circumstances that is of value. Here we do not try to live up to an abstract principle but try to assess the concrete situation. In our methodology we follow an inductive path. Through experience we learn to love and respect life, which then becomes our guiding light on the cross roads of choices. In conflict situations, instead of entrenching ourselves for the sake of a principle, we try to strike a compromise between the opposing factors at a value, which is the practical best for all concerned. Natural systems thrive by striking such balances through compromises because such balances provide a positive edge on life. There is nothing negative about a compromise in nature. In the balance of nature a successful compromise reflects a natural wisdom that has been proven successful through millions of years of survival.

At this point it may be relevant to provide this ‘balance of nature’ with a touch of realism. The example of the pursuing behavior in the male grayling butterflies may serve the purpose well. Mating success is definitely an element of fitness for all sexually reproducing organisms. In the grayling butterfly, mating success depends a great deal on the pursuing behavior of the male toward the female. It is the female who elicits this behavior, and the darker is her coloration, the more efficient is the stimulus she provides. Opposing this selection favoring darker shades is the need to be concealed. The best shade for concealment is a lighter gray. The actual color of the female is a shade of gray that is still concealing and yet it is still effective to elicit the pursuing behavior. Life goes on because of a compromise. In our ever changing world, compromise is the hall mark of wisdom. Much depends, of course, on our values telling us what is really worth pursuing.

HUMAN LIFE.

According to the static view, human life is essentially the same for everyone who may be called human. If in a human being any of the essential features of our humanity were to change we could not call it human any more. There is no in between. One can be either human or something else that is not human. This static, essentially human way of life is expressed in an ideal image. As I live through the many changes of my life, from childhood through adolescence, adulthood and old age, I constantly compare myself with this ideal image, which then reminds me who I and everyone around me should be. This unchanging, monotypic image is the product of my upbringing and represents my ‘parents’ who demand of me to be like them. In so many ways, this is my conscience, my superego. My love of life is identified with the love of the ideal.

Experience shows that falling short of the ideal is a rich breeding ground of feelings of failure, inadequacy, and guilt. I may easily become judgmental of others as I condemn them for being different from me, just as I condemn myself for being different from my parents. The image of the ideal I carry in myself may also be the source of other hard criteria of judgment. Why should I look upon an unborn fetus as human when it obviously lacks the perfection of the ideal of the fully functional parent image? Why should I look upon those of another race as human when they obviously deviate so much from my monotypic ideal image of humanity in form, language, customs and most other aspects of culture?

Human life appears to be quite different in the dynamic, evolutionary perspective. Here, I recognize my life as being a continuous process of changes from the moment of conception until the moment of death. I identify myself with the entire process. I am my entire life. For me to live means to become myself in a unique experience in which I am guided by my past, both genetically and culturally, and at the same time, I am also guided by the demands of the actual circumstances in which I live. My life is open ended. Every moment is a new, small, added detail of realization. As I work toward completion and fulfillment, I know that my choices should reflect a love of life that is within me and provides me with values in this process of becoming. The moment of my death is that moment when my life is the most that I can be.
I recognize in the evolutionary perspective that my life is different from all other human lives. My uniqueness, however, belongs to the same distribution to which everyone belongs. The distribution of all human lives in space and time defines the total human experience. Because I value the richness of this experience, and I recognize that variation is a condition of survival, I do not demand that others be like me. I accept and support our differences and feel enriched by them because they enrich the same humanity to which I also belong.

In the evolutionary perspective, human life is a process and it is a distribution. Consequently, there is no reason to call any part of human development non human, just as there is no reason to look upon any part of human distribution as not part of it. The unborn is just as human as the one who is fully developed, or the one who is incapacitated by old age. Human life is a process. Neither does racism find any support in the evolutionary perspective. We are all of the same distribution.

I do believe that the evolutionary perspective provides us with a far more functional and realistic view of life than the static view frozen in time.

 

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